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Today, Jesmond Dene and the adjoining Armstrong Park and Heaton Park are used by local people and visitors to enjoy walking and other leisure activities. But it was not always like this. In earlier times, over a period of many hundreds of years, there were water mills in the Ouseburn Valley to grind corn from local farms. Later, with the coming of the Industrial Revolution these rural mills were joined by other industries and the whole valley was a hive of activity.

Jesmond Dene

To appreciate how the valley we now call Jesmond Dene was formed, it is necessary to go back some 300 million years when this area was one vast delta. As time passed, the waters of the delta receded, leaving behind massive deposits of sediment which, over the years, became compounded to form the shale and sandstone layers present in the Dene today. Following the Ice Age (12,000 years ago), the great glaciers melted at a rapid rate. Their meltwater caused torrents of water to flow and the rivers and streams formed then cut their way to the sea. The Ouseburn was one of those glacial streams and played its part in the formation of the Dene. Rising on Callerton Fell, near Ponteland, some eight miles from the Dene it was probably a raging torrent in its early days. On its journey to the River Tyne the Ouseburn gouged the deep valley which now forms the Dene.

The warmer climate also brought vegetation and over the years large areas of Northumberland became covered with great forests. The Ouseburn valley became covered in a dense forest of oak, ash, holly and hazel and this tree selection can still be seen today, although other species are intermixed. It would have remained a quiet wooded valley for thousands of years and been populated by bears, beaver, wolves and wild boar.

During the last several hundred years, improved farming methods and the beginnings of industrialisation began to see some woodlands being cut down to satisfy the growing demand for timber and farmland, especially where the landscape was relatively flat and accessible. It is probable that the steep sided valley we know as Jesmond Dene has always been wooded, but gradually, industries crept in and by the 19th century the Dene was home to watermills, various quarries and pits and an iron foundry.

Prior to the mid 1800s the woodland was probably more straggly than today and interspersed with a heavy undergrowth of gorse, brambles and the like. In the mid 19th Century the nature of the valley changed when William George Armstrong (later Lord Armstrong of Cragside, Northumberland) bought up large areas of the valley. With his wife, he transformed it into the landscaped parkland that we know today. They made many alterations such as creating the waterfall, building new bridges and introducing exotic non-native species of trees and shrubs such as cedars, junipers, Californian Redwoods and the rhododendron.

Lord Armstrong in relation to mill area

Lord Armstrong had an enormous impact on the area surrounding the mill. With his fascination for water it is no surprise that he altered the river. A large waterfall, weirs and rock islands were created near to the mill, along with several bridges including the one from which to view the waterfall, and a network of footpaths. The waterfall is the biggest alteration to the river and was a result of blasting out the river bed downstream, while building up the area upstream. He also had a bridge installed to enable viewing of the waterfall. This work resulted in the complete reconstruction of the river area adjacent to the mill building.

It is not known if Lord Armstrong was directly responsible for the mill becoming disused. Although the mill seems to have stopped working shortly after he purchased the land in 1862 it is likely that it had become uneconomical to run due to the competition from steam-powered mills and the other factors.